Then There's This: Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You

More questions than answers in GWTP redevelopment proposal

The Green Water Treatment Plant site is slated for redevelopment, but will Trammell Crow hold to its promises on affordable housing?
The Green Water Treatment Plant site is slated for redevelopment, but will Trammell Crow hold to its promises on affordable housing? (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"It would be nice if all the background on this was available to the public so we could see who said what when."

Housing advocate Karen Paup's remarks pretty much sum up how a lot of people feel about the current state of confusion over the proposal to redevelop the Green Water Treat­ment Plant site. Paup is vice chair of the city Community Development Com­mis­sion and co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

On April 5, the City Council postponed a vote on whether to sell the prized property to Trammell Crow, which four years ago presented the city with a redevelopment proposal that, in staff's opinion, bested a handful of other competitors vying to turn the city-owned lakefront property into a residential-retail-office development that would also include public amenities. That vote is now set for April 26. Council had been briefed on the proposal in late March, but staff and Trammell Crow reps were hard-pressed to come up with answers for what seemed like routine questions from the dais, such as when developers expected to break ground on the project. Things started to unravel after that. The Workers Defense Project, for example, wanted more information about fair wages for workers, tree preservation advocates questioned why the city would give itself an exemption on the Heritage Tree Ordinance to allow the removal of seven trees, and others were simply turned off by the city giveaway.

Back to the Drawing Board?

Still the biggest concern rests on the incredible shrinkage of the number of affordable housing units that Trammell Crow had proposed in 2008 vs. what's in the plan now. This is where it would be helpful to know who said what when, because city staff and Trammell Crow seem to have different recollections from everyone else. For example, they say the plan had originally proposed a five-year lifespan on affordable housing rental units, compared to the current seven-year affordability offer.

Regardless of whether it was five years or seven years, such a short-term affordability factor is a deal breaker, advocates say, because the general standard for providing affordable rental units is 40 years.

After weighing in on the GWTP housing hitch on April 12, the Community Develop­ment Commission voted unanimously to encourage city staff to follow its own ambitious affordable housing policies during its negotiations with Trammell Crow.

"Our issue has always been to get as much affordability as possible in any development, especially when it comes to city-owned land," said CDC Chair Johnny Lim­ón. "If the city really wants to commit to affordability ... the city has to take the initiative and really set it in stone. Trammell Crow committed to 25 percent affordability, so they got a lot of points for that. Now they're at 10 percent. If the developer can't meet that [25 percent] commitment, the city needs to go back to the drawing board and start over again."

Council Member Laura Morrison remembers the vote on the original GWTP deal as if it were yesterday – it was council's last meeting before she took office in June 2008. In fact, one of Morrison's campaign ads on TV featured a frightening image of giant towers looming over Lady Bird Lake and carried a warning to voters that council was considering a big developer giveaway, very much like the one that's on the table today. Ah, memories. Morrison said she is respectful of the council members' action on that day because of the work that went into nailing down the affordable housing facet of the deal. She even voted for the zoning of the site once she was on council. "My thoughts back then, as they are now, are that [the redevelopment] should serve a public purpose ... and not just be an upscale development for the few. I don't believe what we have on the table now meets the expectations that we had at that point," she said.

Rather than scrapping the GWTP proposal and starting the bid process again, Morrison says she hopes staff and the developer can return to council with a more palatable plan that includes more affordable housing units, plus a 40-year guarantee on affordability.

Promises, Promises

In Paup's view, the city wouldn't be in such a predicament if there had been more community input from the beginning. She calls to mind the decades of community participation that went into the successful redevelopment of the city's old airport site at Mueller. "With Mueller, there was a lot of discussion about how to achieve the different community goals and how to pick the right developer who was going to achieve them," she said. "In picking Catellus, it turns out we picked the developer that really stuck with what they promised they were going to do. They set a public standard and decided to adhere to it, and that's something that should be considered here – Trammell Crow promised us things, and they got more points on the scoring of their bid than other developers for affordability, and now they've gone backward on what they've promised."

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